Heartbreaker #6: Nebraska, Johnny 99, and Reason To Believe by Bruce Springsteen, as heard on Disc 2 of Live 1975-85.
For some, just looking at this image will be enough to provoke tears -- of embarrassment. Who remembers the winter of '86? Record retailers put in such enormous advance orders for this boxed set, that the market was flooded. The set sold for as low as $9.99 in some stores, provoking line-ups that stretched around the block. Add to this a televised concert broadcast around the world, and legions of college girls whose spring break anthem that year was Born In The USA. Those of us who had been waiting for The Boss to make it big were surprised -- nay, appalled -- at just how big he was getting.
To make matters more complicated, Bruce was the uncomfortable third-party in an All-American pop-culture Trinity, whose two other points were Ronald Reagan and Rambo. Or was he uncomfortable? The scrawny kid who'd flunked his draft exam now looked like he'd gambled a stamp on Charles Atlas -- did he share a personal trainer with Stallone? Those of us listening to his between-song patter thought he was pretty clear in his denunciation of Reagan's "interest" in El Salvador, but this political message seemed to be lost on the Reagan-adoring masses who flocked to the concerts. The natural question -- Was The Boss too oblique? -- gradually took an insidious form: Was The Boss being purposefully oblique?
Finally, there was the issue of the music. Listening to Live 75-85 from beginning to end hammered home the point that you either loved the music, with all its maudlin slap-bang energy, or you ... wait, did I just type "maudlin"?
Ah, the creeping chill of self-awareness! Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band sure enough had their own unmistakable imprint, but after four hours of Live, even diehard Bruuuuce fans had to wonder if he wasn't a little too reliant on the air-horn honkings of sax-man Clarence Clemons. And what was with those freaky little Glockenspiel bits during the slow numbers? Honeymoon ... just about ......... over.
Nerd! Rock snob! Consumer!!! Colour me embarrassed and guilty as charged. There is, however, a moment in this monumental gathering of noise, that still exerts a powerful grip on me and gets me dabbing at my eyes. It's located smack in the centre of disc 2, and it begins unpromisingly with a history lesson and a rendering of Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land*. (Joe Klein's book, BTW, is indeed worth reading.) From there, Bruce slips into his troubling first-person account of an unrepentant killer, in Nebraska. He follows this up with the laid-off GM worker, and unlikely folk hero, Johnny 99. And closes the set with Reason To Believe. "Believe what?" is the natural question. The answer seems to be, "That it's worth your while."
Somehow these three songs act as emotional proof positive. I loved them in 86, and I love them 20 years later. You can even call me a fan of The Boss -- a crummier fan than he deserves, perhaps, but a fan nonetheless.
*Some endnotes: I think this guy's take on The Boss is more perceptive than most. And although Springsteen sings more verses of Guthrie's anthem than we are accustomed to hearing, he sees fit to steer clear of the discomfitingly anarchistic lyric:
As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!
Woody's got more where that came from, at his son Arlo's site, here.